Author Topic: The Hawk and the Panther, by J.Morgan,  (Read 1174 times)

Offline DannicaAngel

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The Hawk and the Panther, by J.Morgan,
« on: April 23, 2010, 08:42:31 PM »
Intro: The story of Jaden and Lilly continue. Lilly wakes after four years of slumber only to find that Jaden has disappeared.

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The stately manor sat on a low hill surrounded by gardens in full bloom. Spring had come and was almost over as he rode slowly towards the only home he had ever known. He had come every six months for three years to see her. Today was her birthday but he knew this may very well be the last visit.

It was three years ago nearly to the day that she had gotten injured in a fight against a Dire bear. Three years since he found out she loved him...three years since the battle that freed his people and three years since she fell into an unending sleep. He had ruled as Chosen for those three years, he had suffered in silence doing his duty as he always believe he should.

As he got off his horse he was met by his oldest and dearest friend, who to Jaden seemed to have aged ten years. His hair had almost gone and the wide girth of his belly had shrunk down to half of what it once was. He managed a small smile for he was truly happy to see his old friend.

The stoic expression on the old man's face lightened a bit. "Sabine will be pleased that you made it just in time."

Jaden nodded and kept his smile following the older man through the doors of the manor. The tapestries and the grand décor and furniture, sent images of the past tearing at him from inside.

"Jaden!"

The two friends turned to see a young man barely the age of fourteen running down the stairs with a sword tied to his hip. He was already taller than his father and Jaden could tell he was going to be a strong and fine man. His thick brown hair was just like his older sister's, his blue eyes held the same need to prove himself but it was more tempered like his father's. "Connor, I think you've grown six inches from the last time I saw you."

The boy nodded sticking his chest out proudly. "I'm going to Olestra next month, father says I'll get trained in swordsmanship and learn about Alura's history." His eyes flickered away with a twinge of sadness that disappeared quickly and it was as if it was never there. It was his sister who began teaching him to fight with a sword. The hole that her loss left behind was not only his to suffer, but theirs as well.

"I'm sure you will be as fine a fighter as she was." He said and was sure they noticed he did not say her name.

Bastian coughed getting their attention. "Well, Sabine is upstairs in her room. I know you have many responsibilities now my friend and I‘m sure you don‘t have allot of time." He motioned to the grand staircase and followed him up.

"I'm not really that busy anymore. Gavel does most of it and with Pippen and Krogh's help I am merely a figure head. And After abdicating my Lordship to Sarrak I am left with matters of social graces and diplomacy."

"All of those things are of great importance Jaden. It's not always easy to be the symbol that others constantly scrutinize, but it is essential to lead a people."

Bastian always had a head for politics where as Jaden only did his duty for the sake of making his father proud and keeping the status quo. It seemed so long ago that he let his sense of duty keep him from being with her, and now it was too late. The heavy oak door with intricately carved moldings open silently. As the two men stepped into the room the first thing they saw was a woman sitting on a bed looking down at her sleeping daughter. Sabine too looked tired, not physically but emotionally. She alone now kept the hope her daughter would one day wake. But even as the healers told her that after the second year that she would sleep till the end of her days, still she refused to believe it.

Her head turned and she smiled. "Lilly dear, Jaden is here to see you." The woman spoke to her sleeping daughter.

Bastian walked past him to his wife and gave her a loving kiss on the forehead and whispered something to her. She nodded and got up gracefully and with a gentle passing touch on his shoulder, she left the room. Bastian stood looking down on the woman lying in the bed. "I should have told you this long ago. I know your caring for Lilly goes far past mere friendship." The statement knocked Jaden from his inner turmoil with moment of shock, staring at the back of his best friend. "I've known since before, I've known since her sixteenth birthday. I have to admit, I was angry with you at first. But then I saw her on that field the day you returned from the Outlands. She was like a butterfly that had finally come out and saw the sky knowing she wanted to be a part of it. It was all because of you. The way she looked at you, I knew. I was even going to give you my blessing....." The man paused for a moment reigning in the shaking and the tears. Jaden was too stunned to move or speak. Had he been so blind, so naïve and so utterly foolish all of his life? He'd underestimated his best friend, he had kept his perfect mate at arms length. He'd lived as a fool only to become a figurehead to a people who no longer needed him. "Then she fell into this sleep and I knew, from the very first that I had lost her. My precious girl." With that the man's voice cracked and he turned to show his tears like a badge of love for his daughter. "I will leave you now. As always it is good to see you."

As usual Bastian had impeccable manners that held his emotions in check, he took his friend's arm tightly. "Take care old friend."

When the door closed leaving him alone, Jaden sat beside her on the bed and took her hand. His people lived four times that of humans, he was considered young and was often assured that his pain would fade with her life. But as he held her hand, he could not see it. "I am a fool." He began looking to her face that was so peaceful and perfect. "Of course you probably knew I was a fool. But you stayed beside me, you told me that it was ok. You never asked anything of me but friendship." Squeezing her hand he let the wall break allowing tears to slide down from his yellow slitted eyes. "You fought beside me, against me, and for me. You taught me true strength." He leaned down and tenderly touched his lips to hers. "Remember when I said I would go with you to the Durian sea." He kissed her again his tears falling on her face. "I love you." He stood up letting her hand fall gently back to her side.


*****

Opening her eyes she wondered where she was, the room was large and silent but a faint familiarity made her close her eyes and open them again. She knew where she was, she was home. She tried to sit up and was shocked to find her muscles straining to even move. "Jaden!" The words came out raspy but strong enough to echo off the walls of her bedroom. "Jaden!" Remembering the battle and everything she sighed letting her head fall back feeling very tired. "Father!" She finally yelled and the door burst open.

At first she didn't recognize him, his bald head and thin body accented how much older he looked to her. Tears came to his eyes as he rushed to her side. "My girl!" He turned his head. "Sabine! She's awake! Thank goodness." He was kissing her hand and crying uncontrollably. Suddenly a thought occurred to her.

"How long?" Her father stopped and stared at her tentatively. "Father how long?"

"Four years. We didn't think you'd ever wake up." He kissed her forehead. "Oh my daughter."

"Lilly." Sabine came in staring unbelievingly at her. "Lilly?!"

It took another hour before her mother and father stopped crying, before she thought it was ok to ask. "Where's Jaden?"

Her parents exchanged looks and her father answered. "He's the leader of the Rizel now. He has duties to attend to. He's been to visit every six months."

There was something in the tone of her father's voice and his expression told her he was leaving something out. All the activity for some reason was making her tired again. So her parents left her to rest with no small amount of fear that she wouldn't wake up again.

***

Waiting outside of her room he tapped his fingers against his wrist until the healer came out. "Well." He said impatiently.

The gangly older man looked markedly pleased. "There is no infection, or swelling in her cord. I would say she is a very lucky young woman."

"But she can't even sit up." Bastian argued still worried there was something wrong with his daughter. Something that may take her away again.

The healer shook his head. "She hasn't used her muscles for four years my lord. With time and strengthening those muscles, she should make a full recovery." Not able to help himself Bastian hugged the man so ecstatic that his girl had been returned to him.

"Thank you." He cleared his throat pulling back but his smile didn't fade.

"She needs to take it easy. If she pushes her body too hard she may bring on a relapse. Her emotional well being is also important. She needs to stay calm with no undo stress. Her body will heal quicker if she is calm."

Bastian nodded letting out a long sigh then opened the door to see Lilly sitting up with pillows propped up behind her. Her brown hair flowing down her shoulders she smiled. "I told you I would be fine." She said with a hint of smugness.

Looking at her then, he could barely see the young woman who left with Jaden to learn how to be a lady. Then snuck off cutting her hair and pretended to be a soldier. Now full into her womanhood she was stunning. "I think four years to come back was pushing your luck young lady." He walked over to sit on the edge of the bed. "I've sent for Connor, he'll be here by the end of the week. Meanwhile, we'll start building your strength back. I bet you'll be walking by summer's end."

She lifted her chin showing her exuberance and vitality that he'd missed and said. "I'll do it before that." He didn't doubt it either. He knew the healer said she had to take it easy and he would make sure of it but he also knew there was no stopping her when she set her mind to something. He tapped her hand and got up.

"I'll go tell your mother the good news."

"Daddy." Her tone made him stop but he didn't turn around. "What about Jaden?"

"I've already sent word." Then he left the room. He hadn't the heart to tell her the truth.

***

The small town of Hesti had grown in the past few years as a port to ship goods around Alura and Rizel lands now that there was peace. But the town was in flux and crime was rampant. He walked down along the center of town with a wagon of goods traveling behind him. His coppery hair had grown down to his waist and the once duty prone man was now a hired guard of caravans and goods. The dock held only three ships that day. A two masted schooner that was fast and a three masted ship that could hold an entire winter's worth of food for one Rizel village. He stopped keeping an eye out, even though the goods were being unloaded at the docks to be put on a ship bound for Ilang territory he knew many thieves would try to surprise them when they least expect it.

The merchant, a human named Frances came over to him offering him his arm. "Always a pleasure. I don't know what we'd do without you."

He accepted the man's praise stoically and nodded then making sure everything was alright he turned and walk away. After every job he went to the Cat's paw tavern to eat.

The bustle of the place didn't phase him as it once had. Neither did the manner of men that often frequented the place. He looked a the bartender and owner Owen, the man nodded and went to prepare his usual meal. He made his way through the boisterous laughter and stench to the corner booth where he could sit.

***

A large man came in that instantly drew Owen's attention, he had an eye for trouble and this man was just that. He sat at the bar glancing around his eyes focused on the corner. "You let their kind in here? Heh...you're business ain't going to last round here bartender if ya let them in."

"I'll let whoever I wish into my establishment. Who are you to be making such observations?"

The gruff man looked at him darkly. "I'm a man with connections. And I'll be telling ya that if ye let his kind in here you'll be regretting it."

His harsh accent told Owen he was a seaman from the outer sea. His gray orbs focused again on the Rizel sitting and eating silently as he did everyday. "You'll be regretting it if you cause trouble with that one. He isn't the type you want to mess with." Owen said absently drying a clean glass and setting it down gently.

The large seaman harrumphed and drank down a mug of ale then got up. Owen nodded to his two daughters who were serving other customers letting them know to get out of the way. Fights were a common thing in any tavern in Hesti, but this time he had a feeling the large man was going to regret his close-mindedness. He also motioned to his bouncers as the man came closer to the Rizel. He'd never had any problems with the coppery haired Rizel, and he knew his reputation as well for keeping men in business stopping the criminals around port.

***

"Water. You're in a tavern Rizel. Perhaps ye should stick yer head in the river to drink. In taverns ye drink ale or whiskey, or don't ye know what civilized people do?"

The coppery haired Rizel picked up his glass and took a big gulp calmly as if the man hadn't spoken. "Alcohol makes a normally intelligent man into a hotheaded child." He said dryly taking another bite of his veal. "Is there something you want?"

The large man cracked his knuckles trying to intimidate him, but then had to work to keep his features smooth when there was no response to his posturing. "Ye think yer better than us humans don't ye Rizel? I should kick yer arrogant savage teeth in right here..." The Rizel didn't react but unbeknownst to the large man he tensed his legs ready to move. "In...fact I think I will anyway."

"You need to leave." One of the bouncers named Sam, said. He was only half the size of the seaman but he seemed confident he could take the man.

The seaman laughed and pulled a long dagger out slamming it into the table right in front of the guardian who still hadn't even looked up from his meal. "I'll leave when I take care of this savage here and not before!"

In the blink of an eye the Rizel was on his feet his hand had a hold of the dagger and ripped it from the seaman's grasp throwing it to the floor. Before the large man could react he grabbed the man's neck and lifted him up slamming him down on the table breaking it, sending shards of wood everywhere. Shocked, everyone stared in silence but the anger in the Rizel's eyes were only visible to the seaman. "I have done nothing to you. I wish only, to be left alone." Then releasing his grip he stood up and backed away as Sam and Kyle came to take the man out.

Noticing everyone staring he was about to leave when Owen stood up on the counter banging gently on a mug getting everyone's attention. "A round of drinks on the house! In honor of our Rizel friend who keeps the streets of our port safe from his type." He pointed to the unconscious man being pushed out the door. Cheers erupted at the declaration. He then started once again toward the door but was stopped by the owner who stepped in front of him.

"Wait. You eat at my tavern often. I don't even know your name."

He opened his pouch and counted out a few coins and placed them in the man's hands. "For the table." He brushed past him nearly to the door.

"Please, just your name. Is it so much to ask?"

"Jaden." Was all he said before the doors swung out.

***

The sun was warm in the gardens, Lilly sat on a blanket alone. Her father had argued that someone should be on hand to help her if she needed, but she threatened to crawl outside on her elbows if necessary. Everything that was so long ago for everyone else, seemed like yesterday to her. The battle, her friends, Jaden. Her muscles were straining to keep herself upright and balanced but she was determined to stay that way for another hour. She hated being so weak, remembering the battle with the Dire bear she realized how much she took for granted.

"I see you're not listening as always."

Lilly turned and gaped. Her brother came strolling up to her. His shoulders wide, his brown hair thick and trimmed neatly. The sword he had on his hip suited him nicely making him seem so much older than he used to. "Connor!" He bent down hugging her tightly.

"Hey sis. I can't believe you came back to us. I've missed you."

She noted how controlled he was, his mature demeanor was so different from the last time she saw him. Jumping up and down in front of Jaden asking him a multitude of questions. "Look at you. You're all grown up." She grinned as he sat down beside her leaning on his hand and grinning from ear to ear.

"Not quite, I'm only fifteen. I can't wait to show you how much better I've gotten with the sword."

"It won't be long. Don't think I'll let myself stay like this forever. I'll still whip you good." The both shared a laugh. "Have you herd anything about Jaden? Father won't talk much about him, I think he's hiding something. He doesn't want to upset me."

Connor's expression sobered. "I can't tell you Lilly. Not yet."

"What do you mean?! What's happened, he isn't....." She couldn't finish. The thought that something happened to him made her heart race.

"No...no as far as I know he's alive. Calm down." Connor was holding her shoulders gently looking worried. "You see. I can't tell you yet. But he's alive.... and as far as I know safe. But you have to focus on you right now. Get your strength up and when you can beat me in a sparring match then I'll tell you. Everything."

Taking a deep shaking breath she realized how weak she really was and that she might have tipped her hand as to her feelings for Jaden. "Alright. But what about father? What if he doesn't want me to know?"

Connor gave her an impish smile that reminded her of the time he put mud in her slippers. "You have my word. Whether or not father approves if you beat me, I'll tell you. But I'm afraid you might have more questions than I have answers."

His words confused her, how could he know something but not? How could he know Jaden was alive and safe but obviously not know for sure? "I think I need to go inside now. I'm tired." She said feeling dizzy, there was so much she didn't know and wasn't used to not being able to find out herself. She was tired of being treated like a child, but she was as weak as one. She promised herself that she wouldn't stay that way long.

***

The large ship that put into port was bustling with onlookers all waiting to see. Captain Grady had sailed all the way to the forgotten lands and brought back living creatures he swore hadn't been seen in thousands of years. Jaden couldn't deny he was curious as to what the captain found, but his business there was purely that...business.

"Oye you're that guardian Rizel I've heard tellin bout ain't ye?" The captain bellowed limping heavily down the gang plank. He nodded with his arms cross measuring the man that was no taller than his shoulders.

The man offered up his arm. "Me name is Grady, captain of the Spirit, the finest ship there's ever been.

There was something good in the man's eyes that brought an unusual smile to Jaden's lips. "I'm Jaden. I've heard that you found creatures on the forgotten lands. But I fail to see what you need me for. Are you transporting them somewhere?"

The captain nodded stroking his well trimmed beard that crawled up the man's cheeks almost to his eyes. "I'm takin them to Olestra and into the Rizel kingdom. I had to put me first mate to sea not long ago. He had other plans for theses creatures."

Jaden nodded. "You think your first mate will try to take them from you?"

Grady shrugged tentatively. "I'm not for knowin that one's intensions, but I've lived long enough to know to be cautious."

"Well, I do not go into the capital city, neither do I venture into the Rizel kingdom anymore. But I would be willing to escort you to Hollinger and there you can find another to take you the rest of the way. "

The man regarded him for a moment. "Ye don't seem the criminal type to me..." Then the man shrugged. "I guess it's none of my affair where ye go and fer what reason. Ye have a deal. Come up and see what yer protecting."

Jaden followed the man to the main hold where three great cages were lashed tightly so they didn't shift in the swell of the waves. "My men nearly got themselves killed with this one. A trickster." He stopped in front of a cross hatched cage large enough for a grizzly but inside a small black cat crouched looking flatly at them. "I'm not sure he's worth the effort. I was half tempted to kill the thing mid-trip."

"It's a cat." Jaden said not understanding the worry.

Captain Grady sniffed and picked up a stick only to bang it hard against the bars. The cat leapt at them growing in seconds to a panther larger than Jaden had ever seen. He almost stumbled back in surprise. "It's a demonic beast, it took out four of my men before capturing it."

Jaden stepped forward towards the cage as the panther growled low but didn't move. "Why did you capture him captain?"

"Trade is goin good these days, too good. Me competition is beatin me fer sure with their faster, smaller ships. It may no be noble, but I've got te survive in this world."

Jaden understood, but still his heart ached for the creature, the others were tamable who he could see was not all that upset from being taken away from their homes. One was a new breed of horse that had a horn sprouting from its head. Jaden went into the cage and appraised it as Gavel had taught him. The good muscles and temperament made him think again of his good friend. The second was a fluffy four legged thing with large eyes that hummed contentedly when stroked. All in all they were happy with human or Rizel companionship.

"I have a friend who would love that horse." He commented as he joined Captain Grady on the dock jumping easily off the planks. "I've never known a captain to go so far from his ship."

The old man grimaced. "I don't like it, but without my first mate, I have no one to trust my business to." Then seeing a few of his men coming down the plank leading the horse he growled. "Get that thing tied fast I don't want no one makin off with it. Get that puffy thing out and secure that damn cat!" The man's bellowing made Jaden chuckle softly.

 

The caravan moved slowly the wagons being weighed down with other goods for trading. Jaden walked on point the open space making it easy to see enemies coming. But he knew all too well that ten miles from town there was a gully that was by reputation named Ambush Pass. Three other of captain Grady's own guards positioned on each side of the wagon train.

When they finally got to the pass, he put up is hand to stop the caravan before the entered. "What are we stoppin for? We just got started!" Captain Grady shouted gruffly.

"Keep going. I'll meet you on the other side." He looked back with a quick nod to the guards and took off into a full run disappearing into the trees leading up the steep incline. He'd found may thieves lying in wait in the past. Running crouched he found a place to watch the caravan enter the gully. The wind shifted, he scanned his surroundings paying attention to the rocky outcroppings just below him. Predictably three men sat hidden from view with weapons ready one with a bow. Jaden drew his sword and with a smile he jumped down ten feet slamming the but of his sword and fist down on two of the men and struck out catching the other in the back. He came up and with a quick thrust taking out the next thief, but then the third had recovered from the initial shock and the blow to his face. The man pulled his short sword and Jaden paused grinning wildly, truly enjoying this part of it all.

"Is this your idea of an easy life?" He laughed as the man attack blocking and twisted his wrist then brought this knee up hard smashing into the man's diaphragm. The sound of the breath begin knock out of him only lasted a moment as Jaden flipped his sword down and plunged it into the back of the last thief. "I guess not."

Rejoining the caravan as they came out of the gully he took point again. There was allot of time yet and many dangers on the way to Hollinger. Night came and the two wagons were secured while the camp fire was lit. Jaden sat half facing outward into the darkness. While the others ate their supper and talked about women and the sea.

"You're not like the other Rizel I've seen." Captain Grady spoke up quieting the others.

"I am not like any Rizel at all." He replied calmly then got up and walked over to the wagon that held the cat. The little black feline looked up at him and tilted its head like he was trying to figure him out as well.

"I meant no disrespect lad." The captain commented coming up beside him. "I've just never seen a Rizel use a sword and not one of those spear sword things."

"Iklwa." Jaden said quietly. "I take no offense captain."

"But you're past is too painful to think about." Grady said. Jaden looked at the man amazed at how easily he saw through him.

"On the contrary. I can't stop thinking about it." Captain Grady patted his shoulder and went back to the fire leaving Jaden alone with his past.

 

It took another week to get through the Frisian forests and across the plains outside of the Malian swamps. The wagons were slow and cumbersome and often got stuck in the thick viscous mud. His pant legs half covered in drying mud Jaden and Scott, Micel and Adam all stayed close to the wagons just incase they needed to be pushed. The road was partially raised so that made them have to go single file. The unusual horse Grady named a unihorse was in front looking as if it wasn't having trouble at all. The fluffy animal was too low to the ground so the Captain had it up on the lead wagon where all the other goods were kept as well. Where the large and heavy cage holding the Panther spirit was in the second wagon. A shout sounded when the second wagon started to slide into the deep part of the bog. Swearing under his breath Jaden ran back and as the man that was driving jumped off while three other men all tried to keep it from sliding all the way off the road. The panicked animal transformed and the added weight tilted the thing and the men couldn't keep it up.

Not thinking Jaden jumped onto the wagon's side seeing the cage being sucked down as the large panther flailed trying to get out. "Throw me the keys!" He yelled looking back.

"Are ye crazy lad. That when'll rip ye ta pieces?!"

"I'm not going to let him die!" He held out his hand as the wagon and the cage sunk sideways into the murky bog. "Quickly." One of the men threw him a large heavy ring with the key slipped on it. Jaden crawled closer careful not to shift the weight and send the wagon over on its top. He focused on the terrified animal. "Easy. I'm going to get you out but you have to be still." He said and placed the key in the lock. The panther was breathing heavy but he seemed to calm down slightly. Opening the door slowly he stepped back crouching and balancing in the edge of the wagon. The large cat bounded easily out of the cage and right beside him. They stared at each other for a moment. Jaden's hand rested gently on the hilt of sword but he never moved to pull it. The green eyes of the panther regarded him and then he shrunk back into the small cat. Unthinkingly Jaden put out his arm and the cat ran up and onto his shoulders. He stood and with one giant effort leapt onto the solid ground to his waiting and amazed companions.

"Well done lad." Grady clapped. But when his men came close, the cat began to hiss making them stop. "Well it looks like he's found his master."

Jaden looked at the cat who looked back at him with a curious expression. "I'm no one's master." He looked at the captain. "I do not have the money to pay you..." The man waved it away.

"That things not worth what I'd get for him. Besides I don't think we'd be able to force him ta do anything now that the cage is gone."

Jaden bowed his head and straightened as he cat got comfortable his tail flickering down his back. There was a small part of him that felt comforted by the creature. "Thank you captain." They all went back to making sure the other wagon was secure and the whole time the cat never moved from his shoulder until they got out of the bog and they set up camp. Sitting away from the fire looking up at the stars Jaden jumped a bit when the cat suddenly grew and laid down beside him. Jaden's hand stroked the panther's well muscled haunch feeling the vibration of its purr. "I will have to think of a name for you. I can't very well call you cat all the time." A low growling noise told him that his new friend agreed. "How about uMoya, it means sacred spirit." A simple look told him he liked it. For the first time in two years Jaden closed his eyes without feeling alone.

***

The lake was still and peaceful, no birds flew or sung as the cooler breeze of the end of summer made ripples across the water. Only one thing moved on the far end of the lake. Lilly held out her arm imagining her sword in her hand and brought it down in an arc moving her feet to keep her balance perfect. She breathed in and out in a steady rhythm focusing on the perfection of her forms. Then in a low sweep she held the position her muscles shaking, then crumpled to the ground. She clenched her fist and smashed it down screaming in frustration.

"Hey take it easy sis. You're gonna hurt the ground."

Getting up and brushing herself off she sighed hard looking at her brother. "What are you doing out here?"

Connor smiled and pulled his arm from his back to reveal her sword. "I think we should test you."

He threw her the sword and she caught it looking down. She hadn't touched it all summer. Even looking at it brought back so many memories. Jaden had commissioned it especially for her. The hawk spreading its wings for the hand guards and the panther head at the pommel. It represented the story of the Rizel's creation, it also represented the greatest love in Rizel history. "I think you want to show off." She said mischievously grinning up at him.

His expression said she was right. "Do you think you're ready?"

She pulled her sword from its sheath, the sound of the metal singing as the tip came out made a shiver run up her back. The thrill of battle had been a memory she kept close, all the sparring matches with Jaden. He'd beaten her every time, she swore one day she would defeat him. Just once. "Let's go little brother. Let's see how much you've learned while I slept." This was indeed a test, to see if she was rusty and to see if her body could handle it.

 

Facing off she waited, keeping perfectly still watching to see if her little brother had learned patience. To her surprise he had, he didn't move or twitch, but then it wasn't her strongest virtue so she came in. He blocked the first attack and countered turning and came in low then with a twist he brought his sword up. Lilly saw the ploy and shifted her weight back using her hip to force his balance off and deflected the blow. He was using the same technique Sarrak learned in the king's guard, she knew then even in her weakened state he still wasn't good enough to beat her. But her body was weak and her breaths came in long and heavy after only a few minutes and she knew she had to end it quickly. She wouldn't give up, she never could.

Catching his sword with hers she twisted and then brought her elbow in tangling his arms forcing him to release his grip when she brought her knee up. But he pulled back and when he thought he was out of her strike's reach she dropped to the ground and swept his feet making his head smash hard against the ground. His sword slid across almost to the water's edge while hers laid perfectly beside her when she collapsed to the ground as well. The move had spent all of her energy. "You've improved since we fought with the broom sticks." She joked lying back enjoying the coolness of the grass.

"I can't believe I lost.." Connor said not moving to retrieve his sword. He leaned up on his elbows to peer at her disappointment painted across his face. "You can barely even do your forms and I can't beat you." Lilly noted that he wanted to fight her when she was at a disadvantage.

"To win against a weaker opponent isn't a true win, Connor. But to battle with someone stronger and faster than you is a thrill. Because I live for it I will always beat you." It was a simple truth, a truth she learned on a battle field. It was something she shared with one other person, the very person who taught her to fight. "Of course now you owe me some answers."

Connor nodded reluctantly and got up offering her his hand. "I think we should do this with the whole family." His apprehension worried Lilly but she couldn't deny she wanted her parents to tell her and to know she knew whatever it was.

They made their way back to the manor and Connor called their parents to the library where Lilly was sitting in her father's chair by the fireplace. Whether she liked it or not she was exhausted.

"What is this about?" Their mother asked, she must have been working in her garden because her hands were dirty. Her father came in silently smoking his pipe looking curiously at Lilly and then to Connor.

Connor walked further in crossing his arms. "Mother father I'm going to Lilly the truth about Jaden."

She watched her parents for their reaction. Her mother sat hard on the sofa while her father's grimace took on more pain than anger. "What I don't understand...." Lilly spoke up jarring everyone and making them look a her. "..is why everyone is so worried about me knowing about him. Whatever it is why do you think it'll be so important?"

Connor laughed out loud but not in mirth. "Come on sis. We all know about you and him."

"Connor!" Her mother snapped.

"Well it's true. I mean come on Lilly. The way he acted every time he came, he was like a zombie walking around. He would come visit you and then leave without so much as a dinner or talking to anyone else."

"Conner." Her father said gently. "Enough."

Lilly covered her mouth thinking of him that way. Tears brimmed her eyes and suddenly she was afraid for him. Her father knelt down in front of her and took her hand gently with compassion in his eyes. "I didn't tell you because, I was afraid if you knew you would take off and not allow yourself to heal properly."

"Tell me what?"

He cleared his throat and kissed her hand. "He's gone. He left and no one knows where he is. He disappeared a year ago after he came for your birthday."

"Someone must know where he is." She said absently her thoughts jumbling. The thought that he was dead ran through her mind but she pushed it away soundly. He was alive somewhere, and she had to find him. He thought she would never wake up and he left everything. "His duty.....why would he leave? He's always been so...."

"Oh honey." Her father interrupted. "When a man looses the most important thing in his life, duty, friendship...they all fall away and seem so unimportant. But I don't know where he would go."

"Then I have to find him." She got up and was about to walk out.

"Wait. Lilly you can't just leave.... you need to wait." Connor said stepping in her way his hands up pleadingly.

She took a breath. "You're right." He seemed to relax as did her parents. "I'll leave in the morning." Then she pushed past him and went up to her room so she could pack.
"Innocence" he said, while his eyes fell away and slowly slid black irises to study the mist-laden woods around him.
"Losing your innocence, is like losing a limb."
The smile that appeared on his lips was neither cold nor warm - it was colourless.
"She crippled me"
"For that, I will cripple her.